The marine industry engaged in St. Lawrence River trades has been up in arms over alleged ‘inadequate’ icebreaking services by the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) during a winter that has provided the densest ice conditions since 1993, and is urging the federal government to rectify certain priorities.
While the powerful ice-reinforced container vessels of global carriers calling at Montreal – a strategic North Atlantic hub - experienced limited delays, this was not the case for domestic coastal operators and some foreign-flag operators.
In a bluntly-worded letter on January 30 to Gail Shea, minister of fisheries and oceans, four industry associations blamed an icebreaking fleet “falling into a state of increasing obsolescence” for the stranding of 20 ships imprisoned in ice between Jan.3 and Jan. 9.
Affirming that nearly one third of the icebreaker fleet (consisting of 18 units, including six heavy and medium units) is operating at less than full capacity, the industry considers this has resulted “in serious financial losses for Canadian industries and their trading partners overseas.”
Under average ice conditions, after receiving a message for assistance, the CCG is supposed to deploy a unit on the scene within five hours on the St. Lawrence River and within 12 hours in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Two vessels owned by a Quebec shipping firm, Groupe Desgagnés, had to wait for six days off Rimouski in the St. Lawrence River. And a number of ferries were immobilized for several days.
Under the government’s cost recovery policy, shipping lines are charged an Icebreaking Services Fee whenever CCG help is executed.
In their letter, the Shipping Federation of Canada, the St. Lawrence Shipoperators, the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council (SODES) and the Association of Canadian Port Authorities evoked the “negative implications” for the reputation of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor “as a major commercial axis and reliable transportation route.”
It also warned of “a less than ideal outcome within the context of an increasingly global economy and a recently-negotiated free trade agreement with the European Union.”
Rather than attempting to prolong the life of a fleet with average age of 33 years and “in a state of increasing obsolescence,” the letter urged the federal government to “undertake immediate action to invest in the construction of (new) medium and heavy icebreakers.”
Such a move, the object of a number of industry representations in the past few years, should take “precedence over the planned construction of a $1 billion polar icebreaker dedicated to the Arctic,” said the letter signed by the St. Lawrence Shipoperators, the Shipping Federation of Canada, the St. Lawrence Economic Development Council (SODES), and Association of Canadian Port Authorities.
As it happens, construction on the West Coast of the polar icebreaker announced several years ago (and conceived as part of a sovereignty campaign in the Arctic) remains mired in delays due to budget and other complicating factors. The already-named CCGS John G. Diefenbaker was initially slated to enter service in 2017 – but now it is not expected to join the fleet before 2022 if the project proceeds.
The industry letter also rammed home this point: “The maintenance of winter operations in the St. Lawrence, Saguenay and Gulf cannot be sacrificed for the profit of another region, especially when one considers that trade along the St. Lawrence corridor generates economic benefits of more than $2.3 billion annually for Quebec, and represents more than 40 percent of Canada’s international freight and 50 percent of its domestic freight.”
The letter, nevertheless, did not question the resourcefulness or quality of the work done by Coast Guard employees under difficult circumstances.
In an interview, Michael Broad, president of the Shipping Federation, which represents ocean carriers, said “some of our members have been quite upset. And prolonging the lives of the old CGG vessels (through re-fits and repairs) is not a long-term solution.”
According to SODES in a press release, the losses to the maritime industry and to foreign trading partners due to delayed arrival of Coast Guard assistance “averaged more than $100,000 per ship per 24 hours of delay. And extending the lives of the old CCG vessels is not a long-term solution.”
Tony Boemi, vice-president growth and development of the Montreal Port Authority, acknowledged that some vessels were stranded unexpectedly between Jan. 3 and Jan. 9 due to ice conditions. But once the information was known, “the Port of Montreal communicated with the appropriate government authorities” and the channel was cleared so the vessels could proceed to Montreal.
“The Port Montreal continues to operate on a year round basis as it has for the last 50 years,” Boemi stressed.
Response of the Canadian Coast Guard
Asked to comment on the issues raised by the marine industry, David Walters, from the media relations office of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, stated in an email: “To respond quickly on one of the longest rivers in the world, the Canadian Coast Guard strategically deploys its vessels and sets service priorities – search and rescue, flood control, ice jams and ice stops, passenger ferry service, vessels carrying dangerous cargo, commercial vessels and harbor breakout.
“From December 23 to 27, 2013 and from January 3 to 9, 2014, the Canadian Coast Guard mobilized three icebreakers in the Lake St. Pierre area, where a single icebreaker is normally required, to stop the formation of ice jams and ensure flood control. Since 2009, more than $6 billion in investments into the renewal and life extension of Canadian Coast Guard vessels which continue to provide quality service, have been announced.”